H-Net Review

Published by H-Civ@h-net.msu.edu (January, 2002)

David W. Blight. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. 512 pp.
Illustrations, notes, and index. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 0674003322

Reviewed for H-CIVWAR by Joan Waugh (jwaugh@history.ucla.edu), Department of History University of California Los Angeles

A long awaited book by one of the finest historians of the Civil War era, _
Race and Reunion _lives up to high expectations. David Blight, the Class of
1959, Professor of History and Black Studies at Amherst College
demonstrates that a national memory based on reconciliation triumphed over
at least several other competing and equally important "memories" of the
war. By the early 1900s, Blight contends, sectional harmony had emerged as
the dominant motif in many histories, commemorations, reunions, monuments,
novels and plays. Competing narratives were diminished or erased. One of
those narratives was the story of slavery, emancipation, and freedom.
Blight places this story back into the center stage, where it belongs, and
in doing so provides a stunning examination of how Civil War memory was
created and sustained.

Blight's argument, written in densely packed prose is simply put: in the
four decades after the Civil War southern and northern whites agreed that
the deepest meaning of the conflict was to be found in commemorating valor
and courage of the soldiers of both sides. The "Union Cause," had
transfigured into the "Lost Cause," lending credence to the saying "The
North won the war but lost the peace."

To my mind, the heart and soul of _Race and Reunion_ lies in Blight's
examination of just how the "Emancipationist Vision" of the war articulated
by Frederick Douglass and others was obscured and even obliterated from
national history. Two of Blight's chapters particularly illuminate this
process. Chapter Three, "Decoration Days" (later called Memorial Day)
traces the origins of the day of remembrance to the activities of African
Americans and former abolitionists in Charleston, South Carolina (p.73). On
May 1, 1865, ten thousand ex-slaves participated in ceremonies that
commemorated fallen Union soldiers. Mindful of the sacrifices that both
black and white people had made so that freedom could be nationalized, the
participants enthusiastically embraced the trappings and symbols of
citizenship. On this occasion, African Americans celebrated the progress
that had been made by the war, and the progress that they hoped would come
with Reconstruction.

In the late 1860s, Decoration Days proliferated through the country. By the
1880s, "many a speech flowed with reconciliation as it honored the dead."
Blight notes that African Americans increasingly occupied a "marginal
place...in white Civil War memory." How, and even more importantly, why,
should African Americans remember the war? Blight takes this question up in
Chapter 9, "Black Memory and the Progress of the Race." Frederick Douglass'
struggle to keep the freedom flame burning was aided by W.E.B. DuBois'
trenchant criticism of racist mythology that denied African Americans
agency in history and justice in the present. Alternatively, the most
important "race leader" in the late 19th century, Booker T. Washington
urged his people to forget and forgive past grievances, like slavery, and
work hard for progress. Thus, African Americans faced complex dilemmas on
how to reconcile the bitter legacy of slavery, with the freedom the Civil
War delivered, and the promises of that freedom dashed by Jim Crow.

_Race and Reunion_ also offers a series of impeccably researched chapters
on Reconstruction, veterans, war literature, and soldiers great and small.
Familiar figures of the era--U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Oliver Wendell
Holmes, and Jefferson Davis-- are analyzed for what they contributed to
"peace among whites." Each chapter unfolds a complex case study: of the
"Soldier's Faith," or of the "Lost Cause," that convincingly chronicles the
way in which certain memories were privileged while others suppressed,
sometimes brutally. Blight describes how the bitterly partisan politics of
Reconstruction led to the withdrawal of northern support for black suffrage
and economic independence. Many in the North, fearful of labor disturbances
and popular anti-business movements moved quickly to forge cross sectional
ties that emphasized reconciliation and downplayed the controversial issues
that gave rise to the Civil War.

White veterans gave emotional resonance to the drive for national unity
when they met in carefully orchestrated "friendly" reunions throughout the
1880s and 1890s. The shared experiences of soldier hood was a theme that
could bring former enemies together peacefully on the anniversaries of
storied battles, such as Gettysburg. Ex-Confederate and ex-Union soldiers
now celebrated the valor of both sides fighting for equally honorable
causes. Organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic and the
Confederate Veterans lent considerable political and social influence to
promoting the courage of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. Reunions alone,
however, could not erase the troubled legacy of slavery and the myriad
complications of emancipation. In the 1880s and 1890s, there was a vast
outpouring of published Civil War regimental histories, memoirs by leading
generals such as U.S. Grant, and soldier's reminiscences that largely
sentimentalized white reunion. Magazines, like _Century Magazine_,
published self-described "objective" accounts of great battles and leaders
of the war that were avidly read by the public.

Few accounts of the African American experience in the war found their way
into the pages of the successful _Century_ series. The works of southern
writers such as Walter Hines Page and Joel Chandler Harris, on the other
hand, popularized a romanticized image of the pre-war South, emphasizing
faithful and loyal slaves. They demeaned the history of hundreds of
thousands of black men and women who willingly embraced freedom and fought
for their rights.

Blight does not ignore opposition to reconciliation sentiment. Monuments,
like the Shaw Memorial in Boston, and commemorations, like DuBois' "The
Star of Ethiopia" pageant, celebrated black participation in the Civil War.
"Emancipation Day" remained important in the black calendar. Many, many
northern veterans decried the heavy emphasis on blue and gray comradeship
(as did southern veterans from the opposite point of view). Blight quotes
one former Union soldier in 1879 as describing the Civil War as "a death
grapple between right and wrong." He went on to denounce the southern cause
saying that the treasonous actions deserved to be "so punished...that it
might never come to be eulogized as true loyalty" (p.95).

If anything, Blight underplays northern dissent, manifested in speeches,
parades, and reunions, and in published accounts of the war. As Barbara
Gannon has recently shown, there were more than a few interracial G.A.R.
posts, and black and white veterans joined together in various
commemorative activities. [1] Nor did allegiance to country and freedom,
the "Union Cause," disappear from the speeches and eulogies of prominent
politicians, ministers, and ex-generals in the North. Known today primarily
for its reconciliationist sentiment, Grant's Memoirs published in 1885 also
contained two strongly worded refutations of the Lost Cause ideology. "The
cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have
to be attributed to slavery," Grant wrote. And that cause, he noted in his
chapter on Appomattox, was "one of the worst for which a people ever
fought, and one for which there was the least excuse." [2]

Despite notable and continued opposition, by the early decades of the 20th
century, the whitewashing of Civil War History had occurred. The cause of
the Confederacy had been states rights without slavery, and the cause of
the United States had been union without freedom. Blight's epilog on the
semi-centennial of the Civil War summarizes powerfully the themes of
sectional harmony and a "white only" version of the War that had been
building for decades.

By 1915, Blight argues, the memory of the war was "a quarrel forgotten"
(p.384). In _Race and Reunion_, David W. Blight reminds us that the cause
of the Civil War was slavery, and that its most important consequence was
freedom. Blight's book should be required reading for a national dialogue
about slavery, race, the Civil War and the relevance of how Americans
remember, and forget, their past.

[1]. Barbara A. Gannon, "Sites of Memory, Sites of Glory: African-American
Grand Army of the Republic Posts in Pennsylvania," in _Making and Remaking
Pennsylvania's Civil War_. Eds. William Blair and William Pencak
(University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press,
2001): pp. 166-187.

[2] _Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. _(New York: Charles L. Webster &
Company, 1885): p. 549, p. 489.

Copyright (c) 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved.  This work may be
copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author
and the list.  For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu.

Free counters provided by Andale .